Plumbing the Mysteries of the Plumbing Trade in Paris
- Published on Sunday, 07 October 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Leaks Fixed. Drains Cleared.
Watch out in there! A lot of Parisian plumbers will try to get your water flowing while cutting off your cashflow.
The leak in my toilet reminded me of my old stereo system. Back in the days before digital technology became compact and ubiquitous, when you had to be home to get your phone calls, friends were people you had actually met, and an important notice from your bank really was an important notice from your bank, I had a stereo and a sizeable collection of vinyl records.
As other baby boomers who didn’t grow up with CDs, iPods and J-Los will recall, the phonograph companies used to put sternly worded warnings on posters in record stores and on the backs of albums admonishing stereo owners that if they didn’t change their needle regularly they would ruin their precious, delicate record collection.
In retrospect, I suspect that it was all a hoax, or at least a hyped-up gambit to sell more industrial-grade gemstones. Phonograph needles came in two qualities, sapphire and diamond, the latter being considered a must for the devoted audiophile.
I don’t know if it’s literally true, but diamonds are popularly considered to be the hardest substance on Earth, and indeed take the top slot on the Mohs Scale of Hardness, the reference that geologists use for determining the scratch resistance of minerals.
From softest to hardest, the rankings are: talc, gypsum, calcite, fluorite, apatite, orthoclase feldspar, quartz, topaz, corundum and diamond. Note that “Beach Boys single” is not even on the list.
Nonetheless, to hear the needle mongers tell it, every second of sonic pleasure derived from a vinyl record was somehow wearing out the needle, which in turn would somehow damage the record. Which I suppose would make the record wear out the needle even more, and so on.
This makes no sense to me now, but as a conscientious consumer I changed my needle every two years. The procedure was invariable. Since the needle clipped onto a cartridge that plugged into the tone arm of the turntable, every other January I would dutifully unplug my cartridge, take it to the audio shop and ask for a replacement needle.
And every time the guy behind the counter would inform me that it was no longer possible to buy needles (which cost about $25, as I recall) for that particular model of cartridge and that my only option was to purchase an all-new cartridge, for about $80 (I think — my memory for numbers is famously unreliable, but it was in that ballpark) (or diskpark).
This irked me in ways that are difficult to describe and unpleasant to recall. Eighty dollars was a lot of money to me back then, hard-won cash that could have been allotted to the beer and Space Invaders budget.
It seemed obvious that the manufacturers were connivingly launching new cartridges every year to dupe music-loving lemmings like me into buying new ones. Fortunately, CD technology came along before it occurred to them to make the new cartridges incompatible with the old tone arms and thus force me into buying a biannual turntable. Which could have been made incompatible with the amplifier, etc., etc.
The leak in my toilet, however, was not a hoax. Water was slowly dripping from the bottom of the tank and leaving little, and sometimes not so little, pools on the bathroom floor. Obviously, it was a simple matter of replacing the seal between the tank and the bowl, but when I explained this to the first plumber I called, he insisted, applying the logic of the 1970s audio supplier, that there was only one solution: replace the whole toilet.
His argument was that I would be better off with a single-unit monobloc model whose tank and bowl were molded from the same piece of porcelain. I can’t deny that this would have solved the problem, and afforded me permanent, everlasting protection against this specific kind of leak, but I found his reasoning a bit, shall we say, extravagant.
Or shall we say weaselish? To take it one step further, I could also protect myself against all future toilet leaks of all kinds (save overflow) by abandoning my apartment and moving into a new place in which the toilet is molded directly into the wall.
That said, the only places I know of with such a design are prisons. So there’s the solution: commit a serious felony and get sentenced to life sans parole. No more plumbing problems!
Does this guy file for divorce every time his wife gets a headache? In any case, he reminded me of some other memorable encounters with Parisian pipe patchers.
My first apartment in Paris, in addition to the firetrap wiring I discussed in a previous C’est Ironique, had one of those toilet tanks that you often see in café WCs, the ones with a cylindrical wall-mounted réservoir and a handle at the bottom to unleash the flush.
They deliver a lot of pressure, but they also, as I discovered, slowly lose power over time. And thus it came to pass that after about a year in that apartment, I learned a valuable lesson, which I will now share with my readers.
Important notice (really) to Paris residents who don’t already know this: never, never, never, never, never (see the pattern here?) oh grand jamais ever call one of those companies that put cards in your mailbox saying something like “S.O.S. Repairs! Night and Day! 24/7/365! All Trades! Plumbers! Electricians! Locksmiths! Blacksmiths! Humor Columnists! Emergencies Welcome! Lightning-Fast Service! CALL ANY TIME! Available on Christmas! Easter! Judgment Day! December 21, 2012!”
I would never go so far as to claim that they're all a bunch of crooks, because I don't want to commit anything actionable to writing, so let me just say that in my experience they're all an unch-bay of ooks-cray. Once they get inside your apartment their mission is to attach themselves, lamprey-like, to your wallet until they can suck no further sustenance from it.
In this instance, the “S.O.S.” plumber showed up, took one very short glance at my no-longer-flushing toilet tank and said, “You have to replace it.” I told him I would have to call the landlord in that case, so he charged me 200 francs (about €30) for the call, gave me his card and urged me to contact him “ANY TIME!”
Then on his way out he glared at the sink and said, “Your sink is cracked. You need to replace it, too.”
I looked. There was in fact a little three-inch hairline fissure in it that I had never noticed before. "It's going to fall apart," the guy said. I leaned over for a closer inspection, and the crevice didn't seem to be very deep. "You'll cut your hands on the shards," he added, ominously.
Little to my surprise, when I moved out four years later, the sink, and my hands, were still in one respective piece. And, as the landlord informed me when I called to requisition a new toilet tank, the problem with it was that every once in a while you have to cut off the water intake, hold the handle up and drain the thing completely. Then when it fills up again it's as good as new. This is a feature of that kind of tank that every plumber knows.
I repeat: that every plumber knows.
So my first encounter with a Parisian drip jockey was not especially encouraging. But despite being on guard after that, I had a few more brushes with this kind of monkey-wrench business in subsequent years.
In the first apartment that I owned, I woke up one morning to the sound of a tiny, faint, very slow drip in the bathroom, and by the end of the day I had — no kidding — bought a new water heater.
Actually, that time I don't think the plumber was ripping me off. All of his points in favor of replacing the water heater made sense — the plumbing in that place was essentially a DIY job that should have been D by a different Y.
But the same could not be said for his comments a few months later, when I called the same guy about a clogged kitchen drain. After I reported having attempted to clear it myself with one of those toxic, caustic, skin-scorching, sinus-searing, eye frying, ecosystem ravaging liquid drain cleaners, he gravely informed me that every time I used “that stuff,” it left a fine coating around the entire length and diameter of the pipe, and would eventually block it off entirely.
That was such a bald-faced lie that I had to think it was just plumberese for, “I think it’s better for you to pay me €100 to fix any minor overflow than to pay the supermarket €7 for a bottle of drain cleaner big enough to fix 10 of them. My wife thinks so too.”
But to all these stories there is a happy ending: I am pleased to report that, after three decades in Paris, I have finally found an honest, conscientious, punctual plumber who strives to find the least expensive solution to any problem. And who replaced my toilet gasket last week.
He’s so good, and such a rare find, that I now have his phone number tattooed on my neck and I’m applying for French citizenship solely so I can vote for him by write-in when the next presidential election comes around.
It’s a good thing I found him. I was starting to fantasize about putting the “life in prison” plan into action. By murdering a plumber.
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